Sao Paulo: Since September 2021, when Brazil’s government issued a normative act authorizing humanitarian visas for Afghans, 1,237 people who fled the country after the Taliban assumed control have received the right to live in the South American nation.
Although they are grateful to be able to rebuild their lives in safety, adapting to the new reality has not been easy.
The problem for many of them is that Brazil, which is not a high-income country, has been facing economic hardships over the past few years.
The unemployment rate in 2021 was 13.2 percent, 13 percent of the population live in extreme poverty, and 55 percent of Brazilian households endure food insecurity.
“The issuing of the humanitarian visa by the government is a unique help. No other country has been doing it,” said H. J. A., an Afghan university professor who preferred to remain anonymous due to security concerns.
“But when we arrive here, there’s no program to assist us. We don’t have a house, financial help or a job.”
H. J. A., 31, was a law professor in the Afghan city of Jalalabad. Through social media, he met Brazilian social worker Rafaela Barroso two years ago.
“When the Taliban took over Kabul, I asked him if he needed help and he told me he had to flee Afghanistan. That’s when I began to look for ways to bring him to Brazil,” she told Arab News.
Barroso said from the outset she told him that “Brazil isn’t Europe,” and informed him about the harsh effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the country’s economy. When he arrived in November 2021 he felt relieved, but new problems soon emerged.
“Portuguese is too different from our national languages, like Dari and Pashto. Besides, many Brazilians can’t speak English, so communication is a problem,” he said.
Barroso said H. J. A. wishes to do a PhD in Brazil, but revalidating his academic documents can take a long time.
“He worked for a while at a halal slaughterhouse in a small city in the countryside, but then he concluded that there he wouldn’t be able to make progress in the right direction,” she added.
Rahmatullah Khwajazada, 27, seems to share many of H. J. A.’s views after having spent about three months in Brazil.
An ethnic Tajik from Kabul, he worked for the National Statistic and Information Authority but lost his job with the Taliban takeover.
He wanted to move to a safe country, so he tried to obtain a visa to go to Germany and Canada. He managed to come to Brazil.
“I’ve been facing much difficulty learning Portuguese, and finding work isn’t easy, but hopefully I’ll be able to rebuild my career in a few years,” he told Arab News.
After living for some time in Sao Paulo, Khwajazada moved to Curitiba, where he hopes to have his documentation approved by the local Pontifical Catholic University. He intends to start a master’s course in international relations next semester.
“My advice to my fellow Afghans is they should try to emigrate to another country if they don’t have savings. It’s very hard to survive in Brazil,” he said.
“But for those who owned a business in Afghanistan and have some money, it’s pretty possible to open a shop here and rebuild life.”
Lay missionary Rosemeire Casagrande, a member of the Scalabrinian congregation — a Catholic community that works primarily with immigrants and refugees — has been assisting Khwajazada and many other Afghans who arrive at Mission Peace, a welcome center in Sao Paulo.
She said most Afghans who have arrived in Brazil are skilled professionals who used to work for the government, foreign embassies and universities.
“Although they’re prepared to reconstruct their lives, it isn’t easy for them because they don’t have here the same life quality they used to have there,” she told Arab News, adding that many of them wish to enroll in post-graduate studies and one day go back to Afghanistan to help rebuild the nation.
“Many of them are fluent in English. They know that if they move to the US or Canada, they’ll be able to quickly go back to a university and receive a scholarship. But here in Brazil things are more complicated,” she said.
That is why it is common to hear among Afghans in Brazil that they are planning to migrate northward.
Some of them manage to take a plane to Mexico and then travel to the border with the US. Others take a land route through South and Central America, a rather risky journey.
Casagrande said Brazil’s Education Ministry should help Afghan immigrants and speed up their university certificates’ revalidation. “We also have to further incentivize Portuguese learning,” she added.
It has been part of her job to clarify the pros and cons of Afghans’ situation in Brazil. “We explain to them that in Europe their official status as refugees may take years to be approved. Until then, they aren’t able to work or study,” she said.
“In Brazil, they may not receive any financial support, but they have all the necessary documents right away,” she added.
“It’s always a matter of choice, and it’s their choice. But we have to inform them about those things so they can understand their possibilities.”
The spokesman in Brazil for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Luiz Fernando Godinho, said: “It’s fundamental that such a population has realistic expectations regarding the support it can receive in Brazil nowadays.”
He added: “It’s a country with a robust social aid system, but it can’t secure housing for everybody, including Brazilians and foreigners.”
Godinho said the UNHCR is working to translate into Pashto and Dari brochures to guide Afghans about their rights and the assistance available in Brazil.
Despite such difficulties, Afghan immigrant Sorab Kohkan, 65, who has been living in Sao Paulo for 10 years, describes Brazil as “a paradise,” adding: “The government doesn’t give money to the people but offers them the possibility of feeling human again. For Afghans who wish to feel free, sleep well and work, here’s the ideal place.”
A member of the persecuted Hazara ethnic minority in Afghanistan, Kohkan came to Brazil when US troops were still present in his country. “My people (Hazaras) didn’t benefit at all from them. Only the Pashtun did,” he said.
His life is Brazil was not easy. When he arrived, he looked for a government shelter to sleep but realized that immigrants and homeless people — some of them drug addicts — had to share the same place.
He managed to rent a small room for him and his wife, who came to Brazil four and a half years ago.
“I began selling water bottles, T-shirts and other stuff on the streets, and I gradually began to learn Portuguese,” he said.
After some time, he found a job as a teacher of German and French, “but the salary was low so I decided to rent a small place to open a restaurant.”
There, he began to prepare pastel — a popular Brazilian street savory — and pizza. Over the years the business made progress, and now he and his wife have a small restaurant where they cook Afghan, Indian and Thai food.
When the Taliban took power again, Kohkan — a father of five children aged 7-34 — immediately felt that he should bring his family to Brazil.
He traveled to Afghanistan and tried his best to take them out, but had to come back after the two oldest children reached Pakistan.
The others had to remain with relatives there, given that the local guides who clandestinely take people across the border refused to take children to Pakistan.
After a long wait, his two children, along with a granddaughter and a niece, arrived in Sao Paulo in February.
“We’re a little worried about their difficulty to find work with the pandemic, but now they’re free of bombs,” Kohkan said, adding that the new arrivals will start studying Portuguese.
They have been helping him and his wife at the restaurant. “Now they don’t need to struggle for their lives. They’re living freely,” he said.